Thursday, March 27, 2008

My trip part 2

Part 1, 2, and half of part 3 were written when I was away. School is kicking into high gear, so the other parts and pictures might come a bit slower, but I assure you they are coming. So, without further adieus, here is part 2:

Since moving to Japan, I have spent my entire time somewhere in the metropolitan area of Tokyo. The closest I got to escaping this city was Kamakura and an afternoon in Takao. While Kamakura was quite lovely and interesting, it was filled with tourists and sightseers from Japan and abroad. Takao certainly didn’t have tourists except for those changing trains to go to Mt. Takao, but it would be difficult to describe it a as anything but a picturesque suburb of Tokyo. While this was fun and all, spending all my time in a small portion of this country was not what I wanted to do.

One of my best friends in America is Japanese. She has two sisters and two parents. I have met both of her sisters in Tokyo, and much like my friend, they were quite delightful. One of them lives in the city and doesn’t speak much English. The other sister lives with her parents, something not uncommon in Japan. Upon meeting this sister, she invited me to spend time with her parents in her hometown. As I had a four day weekend approaching, I was invited up on Wednesday night to spend Thursday and Friday relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds of small town Japan.

And what a small town it is. After getting off the train, we drove through the tiny city and on towards a liquor store. The whole place reminded me of a tiny East coast town that had been there for a long time, but never became a big place. It was cute and charming, but also a shade run down and old fashioned. Unlike Tokyo, here the car was the desired, and often times only, mode of transportation. Shops were almost indistinguishable from those in America, as they had parking lots and were obviously built with cars in mind, unlike those in Tokyo which are shoved where ever they can fit them.

On the ride to the parent’s house, the sister informs me that we would be eating dinner the mother has prepared. After asking if I can eat Japanese food, a question I get often, I say “Sure. Anything but raw squid”, as raw squid is still probably the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. After saying that there was a long pause, and I knew it… Fuck. We’re having raw squid. My imagined nightmare of being invited to a Japanese home where I was served a traditional, delicate, and expensive Japanese meal that was comprised of things that I would never in my life imagine eating was coming true. I envisioned a plate full of all manners of things yanked out the ocean staring at me with their cold, dead eyes and some gracious host was insisting that these were the tastiest parts. Of course, in such a situation I would swallow my squeamishness right before I swallowed my eyeball.

On the morning of my departure I packed what I thought would be enough then took off. I realized that I forgot to pack a sweater, and while Tokyo was becoming quite warm, I was told that my destination wasn’t. Conveniently, the liquor store we were headed to was next to Uniqulo, a cheap yet trendy clothing chain in Japan. I stopped in and picked up a track jacket, one which I’m sure will serve me well in the future.

The liquor store was stopped at was absolutely massive. I would compare it to a large Beverages and More in America, but after seeing nothing but tiny, crammed shops in Tokyo, it seemed astoundingly large. Their selection was quite nice too with decent American wines, a Canadian beer that was a favorite of the sister, and to my surprise, Tim’s Salt and Vinegar Potato chips. In America, I would sometimes buy these and eat them with a nice deli sandwich, but finding kettle-style potato chips in Japan was tough, not to mention a brand that I was quite fond of in salt and vinegar flavor. They were only 400 yen, which is about $4. Considering that in the US, they cost $3-$3.50, this was a great price.

We left the store and headed off to what only can be described as the country. Views of shopping centers and houses were replaced with snow covered rice paddies. After a bit of driving, we were in a tiny town and quickly pulling into the driveway. The house was surprisingly not very foreign looking from the outside. It wouldn’t seem that out of place in America. I was warned that the family dog would be barking at me, but this didn’t seem to be the case as we pulled up. He was quietly and calmly waiting for my arrival.

The father and the mother, who I had already been warned they didn’t speak English, greeted us upon our arrival. The father had surgery a while back and can’t talk without an aid and when he does talk, which he did so by pushing something on his throat, it is quite rough and a bit shocking. Since his first words were kind and welcoming and I had been expecting this, it quickly stopped being something that was a bit frightening and became normal. The mother was full of smiles and was obviously eager to have us.

The house itself has obviously been a family home for quite some time. There were knickknacks hanging about, plenty of gorgeous flowers in the mud room, something the mother was obviously proud of, and the kitchen cabinets were full of all sorts of dishes, glasses, and other things. I was never given a ‘grand tour’ of the house, which is seemingly not something done in Japan. I was shown the bathroom, the shower room, and the kitchen, where we all sat down at the table.

To describe the kitchen as cluttered would be describing a bookshelf that was completely full of odd shaped books arranged in order based on category, not size, as cluttered. Everything in this kitchen had its place and the mother seemed to know instantaneously where things belonged. Everything wasn’t quite finished being prepared, so I was offered some beer and light snacks to go with it. The father graciously offered me some dried whole fish as he was chomping on one and clearly enjoying it. Having eaten these before and not being fond of them, I didn’t really want to join him, however he was anxious to share with me, so I was anxious to take one. The only thing that comes to mind when I think of the flavor is the smell of fish food. In truth, it wasn’t that bad, which I think is an indication of my changing tastes.

While we were waiting for the mother to finish, the sister and I helped by making gyoza (pot stickers). While the process was easy, all of mine were odd looking and mangled while the ones made by the sister were delicate and quite pretty. The father shared some delicious sake made of rice from his cousin’s farm. It was also clear that the father did not have to do the work.

The food was placed in front of us. For starters, a delicious appetizer of boiled cabbage with a peanut butter and soy sauce was presented. Then came the freshly made gyoza, which was very flavorful. The mother made a custom sauce which was simply soy sauce, lemon juice, and Chinese hot oil to taste, but way better than what I was used to with this quite common dish. At the same time, salad was served, with some type of shellfish and cherry tomatoes, which I wanted to avoid but a plate was made up for me. These tomatoes were obviously fresher than most I had eaten in the past, thus making them better, but I still did not go back for more. The shellfish was surprisingly good in the salad, if not a tad chewy. I ended up going back for more a few times, avoiding the tomatoes. In front of all this was what I would consider to be the main event, a plate of sashimi, or straight up raw fish. While pointing out what was on the plate, there sat my nemesis, the raw squid.

The drinks were flowing and I was very much enjoying myself, as was everyone else it seemed. Plans for the next day were discussed. While skiing was the initial plan, rain kind of put a damper on that. The next day was spring equinox, and according to them, a priest would visit the house in the morning and we would have lunch with some family friends. After that, the sister and I would head out to go sightseeing.

Drinks were flowing and everyone was having a great time. The father was anxious to pour sake for me and told me that my tiny glass was from an area known for having the best chinaware in Japan. I was ready to be brave and try some raw squid, giving it a second chance. When I went to go reach for it, it was all gone. Apparently, raw squid is the father’s favorite and he gobbled it up. I was both saddened and relieved to know that it was not the time for me to try this dish again.

The father retired to bed and the sister, the mother and I sat down in the tatami room for a rest. Tatami is a straw mat that covers the floor and we sat at a kotatsu, or heated coffee table like device. Unlike the kitchen, the tatami room was quite empty by comparison. Sitting down, I was surprised to find that while I sat on the ground, there was a large hole for everyone’s feet, and the heat came from below this. It was really nice and after some light conversation, we all headed for bed.

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